Category: King County

Fewer Staff, More Incarcerated Kids, and Frequent Solitary Confinement as Youth Jail Closure Deadline Approaches

By Erica C. Barnett

In July 2020, King County Executive Dow Constantine committed publicly to closing down the Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC), saying it was time to shift “public dollars away from systems that are rooted in oppression and into those that maintain public health and safety.”

“Today I commit King County to converting the remaining youth detention units at the CFJC to other uses as quickly as possible, and no later than 2025,” Constantine announced in a Twitter thread that noted the connection between police murders of Black people and mass incarceration. About half the kids King County incarcerates are Black, a group that makes up about 6 percent of the county population, and about 18 percent are white, compared to 69 percent of the county.

Constantine’s announcement came at a time of heightened public scrutiny of the criminal legal system in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis. The youth detention center had opened just five months earlier, replacing a decrepit, 212-bed facility next door, and stood largely empty because of COVID and a general reduction in youth arrests. The population would hover at about 20 young people throughout the next year, peaking at 26 and dipping to just 17 in August 2021.

One year later, however, the trend has reversed. In August, the average daily population at the youth jail was 41; on October 3, it was 42, including four kids charged as adults. While the population at the jail has grown, the number of guards at the jail has declined; as of September, 22 of 91 juvenile detention officer positions were unfilled, down from about six vacancies in the fall of 2020—a shortfall of 24 percent.

The timeline for closing down the youth detention center could also get a reality check. Closing the jail requires alternatives to incarceration that don’t exist yet, and the process to come up with those alternatives, which will likely include restrictive housing for youth who present a danger to the community, is proceeding slowly.

The increase in the number of young people incarcerated at the CFJC is exacerbated by a similarly steep decline in the number of people working at the jail. A representative of the Juvenile Detention Guild told PubliCola that juvenile corrections officers are leaving their jobs more than twice as fast as the county can hire replacements. Understaffing has also impacted other positions at the facility, which also has a shortage of nurses and other medical staff. The high attrition rate has created a shortage not just of workers but experience—a gap that shows no sign of closing even as the county ramps up financial incentives to get new hires in the door.

Today, the jail routinely confines kids to their rooms more than 18 hours a day, depriving them of opportunities to watch TV, take showers, go to classes, or visit the library or gym

Understaffing has contributed to the frequent use of solitary confinement, a practice that persists even though it was officially banned in 2017. Jail officials acknowledge that they use “room confinement” when there aren’t enough staff to let kids into common areas safely, but there is no legal distinction between “room confinement” and other euphemisms for isolating kids in their cells for up to 20 hours a day.

Solitary confinement leads to stress, boredom, and fights, and has contributed to a reported uptick in assaults on guards and other staff. According to the juvenile guards’ union representative, “We hire staff who want to work with youth, but they are leaving [because] it is an unsafe work environment, we have to lock youth in their dorms for extended periods of time, [and we] do not have sufficient staffing to provide services to the youth.”

King County officials are aware that keeping kids in their cells is a problem, but the use of the practice has been escalating. In July, there were 13 days when kids were locked in their cells between 18 and 20 hours a day because of short staffing at the jail. Additionally, an independent monitor’s report released in May found a “significant increase” in the number of times youth were put IN “restrictive housing” (solitary confinement) because of a risk of “imminent and significant physical harm to the youth or others,” along with a spike in the length of this form of confinement; in the first quarter of this year, 41 kids were put in restrictive housing for an average of 6 hours per session.

Nick Straley, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, says the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) is skirting laws that were passed specifically to prevent the department from doing exactly what it’s doing now. “The King County Council should get involved and pass strict requirements that force DAJD to do the right thing because we know they aren’t” on their own, Straley said.

King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay—who, like most of the nine county council members, visited the CFJC recently to get a better sense of conditions at the jail—said he was “shocked” to learn recently that the county still effectively allows solitary confinement for youth.

“If we literally don’t have the staffing to monitor people, I understand why that creates a different kind of situation, but it still is alarming, because from an experiential perspective rather than a technical perspective, the youth experience that the same way,” Zahilay said. “All the reasons we don’t want solitary confinement for youth are still true in that scenario, and we have to do everything we can to change those circumstances.”

Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention Director Allen Nance (background: King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall)
Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention Director Allen Nance (background: King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall)

For adolescents, confinement is a particularly harsh punishment, depriving them of not only of chances to interact with other kids and adults but making it harder to schedule visits with attorneys and family members. During visits, kids are separated from their family members by Plexiglas, depriving them of the chance to hug their parents or hold their own children.

“There have been issues with parents not being able to have contact with their kids and only being able to see each other through Plexiglas,”  a COVID-era innovation that prevents direct contact between family members and incarcerated youth, CLS’ Straley says. “The reality is that you’ve got the bare minimum level of humane treatment, and simply not having enough staff isn’t the only reason. They need to have more staff, and/or they need to have fewer kids in jail.”

There’s little consensus about why the county is locking up more kids at a time when youth detention is supposedly on a path to extinction.   Jimmy Hung, who leads the juvenile division of the King County Prosecutor’s Office, attributes the reversal to an uptick in violent crime among both young people and adults. “And it’s not isolated to King County; it’s throughout the country,” Hung said. “We are dealing with aftermath of a once-in-a-century global pandemic, and that has also collided with the continuing escalation and increase in just the sheer number of firearms we have in our community.”

Straley believes the “perception out there that crime is running out of hand” is also contributing to harsher sentences from judges. “I think that perception is not accurate, but that’s the perception, and judges are aware of that and they adjust the sentence accordingly,” he said.

Whatever the reasons, the number of kids at the youth jail is growing, and the number of staff at the jail is not keeping up.

DAJD director Allen Nance, appointed to the position last month after three years as head of the juvenile division, told PubliCola recently that the department “recognize[s]that not only do we need to do a better job recruiting quality folks to work with our young people in custody, but we also have to work diligently to implement strategies to keep the employees that we have today.”

Currently, the department offers hiring bonuses of $7,500 for new hires and $15,000 for lateral hires, as well as $5,000 to any county staffer who recruits a new detention officer for the adult or youth detention center. (Jobs at the adult jail pay slightly better).

However, the county lacks any significant programs to retain jail staffers once they’re hired—a major problem, given how many leave after they experience the challenges of the job; according to the union representative, “many staff will forfeit the money versus staying due to conditions” at the jail, including low morale, lack of support from DAJD leadership, poor schedules, and a lack of transparency about what will happen to CFJC staff if and when the facility closes.

Rod Dembowski, a King County council member who has been skeptical of the 2025 closure date, said during a recent council meeting that one reason the CFJC may be having trouble hiring guards is that the jobs offer no long-term security. “Why would someone come on to this job or stay in this job if it’s going to be gone in two or three years?” Dembowski said. “It’s not a real great career incentive and that may be hampering us.”

Hiring bonuses remain the primary tool the county uses to recruit new guards at both the juvenile and adult jail, which is also facing a crippling staff shortage.  But county rules require newly hired jail staff to pay part of their bonuses back if they stay less than three years, which means that a guard hired today would have to stay at the CFJC until 2025, when the facility is supposed to close, with no guarantee of a new position. The county, in other words, is attempting to entice applicants with bonuses they’ll have to give back if they try to find work before the deadline when their jobs expire.

“Our office’s position has always been that zero youth detention is a goal that we should strive for, and it’s aspirational. I don’t believe that we can truly reach zero youth detention before I’m gone, but maybe for my daughter and my grandkids we can see that [happen].”—King County Prosecutor’s Office Juvenile Division Director Jimmy Hung

At the same time, the juvenile detention department currently relies heavily on mandatory overtime, which falls primarily on new hires. Nance, the DAJD director, said “we definitely intend to reduce over-reliance on mandatory overtime, and in fact, incentivize individuals to voluntarily work overtime,” but did not offer specifics when we asked him about the issue in September.

Nance also said the department is “in the process of finalizing” retention incentives for existing staff, “recognizing that those individuals who have already made the commitment to stay at the detention facility through 2025 deserve an opportunity to work in an environment where they are valued, where they where they are well compensated, and where we go above and beyond wherever we possibly can to support their continued employment in the department.”

Nance did not offer more details about the department’s strategy to keep the staff it has.

Nor is it clear whether the youth detention center will actually close in 2025—or ever. Earlier this year, planning for the closure shifted from the DAJD to the Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) in recognition of the fact that closing the youth detention center will require standing up community-based alternatives to incarceration, including housing that is more humane than a jail. Continue reading “Fewer Staff, More Incarcerated Kids, and Frequent Solitary Confinement as Youth Jail Closure Deadline Approaches”

New Tax Would Fund Behavioral Crisis Centers; Things to Look for in Harrell’s Budget Proposal

King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay speaks at a press conference on a county proposal to raise property taxes to fund walk-in crisis centers
King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay

1. King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed a new property-tax levy to fund five behavioral health crisis centers across King County, along with higher wages for health care workers and the restoration of residential treatment beds that have been lost in recent years. The levy, assessed at 14.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value—about $121 for a median $694,000 house—could be on a countywide ballot in April 2023, if the King County Council approves it this year.

Currently, there are no walk-in crisis centers anywhere in King County, and the wait for a residential treatment bed averaged 44 days as of July, according to the county. Since 2018, the county has lost more than 110 residential treatment beds and is down to 244 beds countywide. “A question that doesn’t get asked enough to the person who says ‘get people into treatment,'” King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay said Monday, is “‘get people into treatment where?'”

In a county with 2.3 million residents, Zahilay said, we have one crisis care facility with 46 beds”—the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Crisis Solutions Center in the Central District, which only accepts referrals from police and other first responders. “If you break a bone in King County, you can walk in and get urgent care. If you’re going through a mental health crisis or a substance use disorder crisis, you have zero urgent care options.”

The nine-year levy proposal would also create apprenticeship programs and other supports for people entering the behavioral health care field, and would “invest in equitable wages for the workforce at crisis care centers,” according to the announcement, plus mobile or co-located crisis services that would operate until the first crisis clinics were open.

“If you break a bone in King County, you can walk in and get urgent care. If you’re going through a mental health crisis or a substance use disorder crisis, you have zero urgent care options.”—King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay

It’s unclear how many people would see higher wages under Constantine’s proposal, which his office released only in summary form. Pay for behavioral health care workers is so low that many employees qualify for the same services they sign clients up for, said Kristen Badin, a crisis counselor and representative of SEIU 1199NW.

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority has asked the city and county to provide an additional $15.4 million to permanently service providers’ baseline budgets by 13 percent in order to increase provider wages—part of an overall budget request that would add about $90 million to the regional agency’s budget, which is funded by the city of Seattle and King County through their annual budget process.

That process kicks off for both the city and county tomorrow, when Harrell and Constantine announce their 2023 budget proposals. On Monday, Constantine said he considered the KCRHA’s budget request “aspirational,” and confirmed that he does not plan to provide all the money the authority’s CEO, Marc Dones, requested.

That budget request, Constantine said, “was essentially a statement of need, and that neither the county nor the city’s budget could support that full request.” Harrell added that “we weren’t able to meet all of the requests, but you’ll see [during Tuesday’s budget announcement] the support we have moving forward with RHA and the support we have the people on the ground doing this important work.”

2. In 2019, the City Council passed legislation requiring the Human Services Department to build a cost of living increase into all new or renegotiated contracts with service providers, based on the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W). At the time, inflation, as represented by the increase in CPI, was modest—between two and three percent.

“I drew a line in the sand [on the use of the JumpStart tax to backfill the city budget], and I want to make sure that we’re sticking to that, not only because it’s what we passed in statute, but because the agreement to use the higher-than anticipated revenue was to prevent austerity.”—City Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda.

Last year, the CPI-W increased 8.7 percent, meaning that compared to 2021, it cost 8.7 percent more to pay for the same goods and services. Any wage increase that’s lower than the CPI effectively constitutes a pay cut—something social service providers whose wages are funded by the city will likely be watching for tomorrow when Harrell rolls out his budget.

Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda said she’ll also be watching for any effort by Harrell to transfer additional funds from the JumpStart payroll tax, which is earmarked for housing, small business support, Green New Deal programs, and equitable development. Earlier this year, Mosqueda proposed using excess payroll tax revenues to help close the budget gap; those extra revenues are projected at $71 million and $84 million in 2023 and 2024, respectively.

“I drew a line in the sand,” Mosqueda said Monday, “and I want to make sure that we’re sticking to that, not only because it’s what we passed in statute, but because the agreement to use the higher-than anticipated revenue was to prevent austerity. And part of preventing austerity is keeping our promises, [including] our promises to human service providers.”

A Homeless Activist Worked to Help Others Living in Vehicles. This Month, the City Towed Away Her Home.

The city towed Chanel Horner’s bus on September 15. Photo Chanel Horner, reproduced with permission

By Erica C. Barnett

Anyone who has watched concrete blocks sprout like crocuses in the wake of RV removals knows that under Mayor Bruce Harrell, the city has taken a newly aggressive approach toward people living in their vehicles.

Although Harrell says the city does not “sweep—we treat and we house”—the fact is that since June of this year, when the city resumed enforcing a law requiring people to move their vehicles every 72 hours, there have been about two scheduled RV sweeps every week, on top of removals sparked by complaints, criminal activity, and vehicle fires. Few of those people have received treatment (which the city does not provide) or housing. Most have either moved to another location or watched their RVs disappear on taxpayer-funded tow trucks—the last time most RV residents will see the only shelter they had.

Chanel Horner lost her home—an old bus she spray-painted with slogans like “RVLoution”—on Thursday, September 15, when a crew from the city arrived to remove it from a street in Georgetown, along with about four other RVs and three vehicles, according to the city’s September encampment removal schedule. Horner had tried unsuccessfully to order compressed natural gas from a nearby provider so she could move the bus, and the towing company she called to pull the bus across the First Avenue South bridge into South Park cited a price of $1,500.

“You don’t have to have a running vehicle to live in it. They may not be vehicles anymore, but they are still our homes.”

Still, Horner had strong ties with local service providers—an active member of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s Vehicular Residency Workgroup, she advocates for RV residents and often helps people move—and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness said they would pay to tow her bus.

“The solution was to either get [Horner] the fuel or get [her] to a place to get the fuel, and no process that doesn’t allow those things to happen should be funded with city money,” the coalition’s director, Alison Eisinger said. “It is clearly an outrageously flawed process that allows this kind of preventable sequence of events to occur,” Eisinger added, “and everyone should be outraged about it.”

“I really thought we were going to be able to tow it out of there, right until the last minute,” Horner said. Instead, after a brief standoff, Horner left the bus behind, bringing a few personal items with her, including the ashes of her dog, who died in December.

We were sitting outside a Starbucks in Georgetown, shouting over traffic and the occasional roar of airplanes a few blocks from where Horner used to live. The site is now barricaded against future RV encampments with concrete eco-blocks, an illegal but ubiquitous tool used by business owners to prevent RV residents from coming back after sweeps. Horner said the city offered her a spot in a tiny house village—a type of shelter where sleep in small cabins and are expected to accept services and work toward housing—but she considers such offers “pretty tenuous.”

Besides, she said, “I didn’t really want a tiny home because I do believe I’m supposed to be in my bus.” According to a 2021 state supreme court ruling, people living in their vehicles enjoy certain rights under the state Homestead Act, including protection against excessive fines and the sale of a person’s vehicle to pay their debts. To Horner, though, the homestead designation has a special, additional meaning. “You don’t have to have a running vehicle to live in it. They may not be vehicles anymore, but they are still our homes. … We’re not homeless,” she added,  “until Bruce Harrell gives the order to tow our homes.”

PubliCola sent a detailed list of questions to several city departments that were involved in the Georgetown RV removal, including the mayor’s office. A spokeswoman for the mayor provided a boilerplate explanation of RV removals, which the city calls “remediations,” including several different reasons the city might decide to remove an RV.

“She is independent and worked hard to get her bus up and running, and advocates were working to assist Chanel in various ways to help her keep her home.”

The spokeswoman did not respond to any of our questions about the decision to impound Horner’s bus, including why her bus was a priority in the first place; whether the city considers extenuating circumstances like the fact that Horner planned to tow the bus herself; and whether the city considered it a positive outcome for Horner to lose her vehicle in exchange for a shelter offer she didn’t take. We also asked whether the city always considered it “a better outcome to move people out of vehicles and into other forms of shelter, including people who are high-functioning and don’t want or require intensive services”—again, with no response.

A spokeswoman for the KCRHA, which does not directly participate in sweeps, said that “outreach providers were active in trying to find an alternative resolution” to Horner’s situation. “She is independent and worked hard to get her bus up and running, and advocates were working to assist Chanel in various ways to help her keep her home.”

In June, KCRHA announced a contract with the Low-Income Housing Institute to to set up an RV “safe lot” for up to 50 vehicles at a time, with the goal of moving people quickly out of their RVs and into “stable, permanent housing.” Horner says she has no interest in that kind of arrangement; she wants to live in her RV, in a “trailer park” with other RV residents, with restrooms, regular trash service, and a community kitchen—kind of like a tiny house village, but without curfews, check-ins, and a commitment to moving out after a certain period.

“I’m really passionate about setting up the RV park,” Horner said. “I want to start the non-movement—because we’re not moving.”

 

Proposed County Budget Will Includes More Cops, Jail Guards, Bus Security, and Diversion Programs

Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention director Allen Nance, King County Sheriff Patti Cole--Tindall
Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention director Allen Nance, King County Sheriff Patti Cole–Tindall

King County Executive Dow Constantine previewed his 2023 public safety budget on Monday, announcing his plans for new spending on police recruitment, diversion programs, corrections officers in the adult and youth jails, and body cameras for sheriff’s deputies—along with 140 new security officers for Metro buses and other investments.

The proposed new investments, which are part of an upcoming annual budget proposal that will be amended and approved by the King County Council, include:

  • $2.4 million for Vital, a program that targets “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system by providing case management and wraparound services;
  • $7.3 million for  Restorative Community Pathways, a pre-filing diversion program for youth who commit certain first-time felonies;
  • $5 million for body-worn cameras, which every deputy would be required to wear by the end of 20205;
  • $21 million to hire 140 new security officers for King County Metro buses, transit centers, and stops.

King County Metro deputy general manager Michelle Allison said the bus agency needs more uniformed security officers on and off the buses to respond to concerns from riders and bus drivers that the bus system is unsafe. “Having more safety personnel is helpful for our riders and for our employees,” Allison said. “These folks acts act as a deterrent, and provide support for our customers and our colleagues.”

Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall said the sheriff’s office has supported body-worn video for officers for at least the past decade, but that “it just takes time” to implement major changes. “We have to complete collective bargaining,” she said. “I think the time is right for cameras because our deputies actually want them. The community expects us to have them that accountability and transparency piece. It’s happening now, and I think that’s the important thing.”

Responding to questions about hiring,Cole-Tindall said her office has already hired 50 new deputies this year, and hopes to hire another 70 in the next two years.

The sheriff’s office isn’t the only county agency that has had trouble not just recruiting but retaining staff. The problem has been particularly acute at the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, where understaffing at both the adult and youth jails has led to repeated lockdowns and the increased use of solitary confinement, including in the county’s Child and Family Justice Center (CFJC), which is supposed to shut down by 2025.

Retention, particularly at the juvenile jail, is a problem: more than 20 of the 90 juvenile detention officer positions are currently vacant, and far more officers have left their jobs at the CFJC than the county has been able to hire.

Nance said his department is “currently working on a plan” to restore in-person visits for family members and social service providers by the end of the year. Additionally, he said, the department plans to restore full booking hours at the Kent and downtown Seattle jails by early next year; currently, bookings at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent are by appointment only, and the downtown jail has shut down booking three times in recent months because of staffing shortage.

Over the next two years, Nance added, DADJ will bring on 100 new adult correctional officers and 30 officers for the juvenile jail. Currently, the county offers hiring bonuses of up to $15,000 for new recruits. However, retention, particularly at the juvenile jail, is a problem: more than 20 of the 90 juvenile detention officer positions are currently vacant, and far more officers have left their jobs at the CFJC than the county has been able to hire. New recruits have to pay the bonuses back if they don’t stay for three years; with the youth jail slated for closure in 2025, this presents a challenge: It’s harder to nail new employees to a three-year commitment when they know they may be out of a job at the end of that period.

County Denounces “Misinformation” On Juvenile Diversion, Discovery Institute Staffer Chases County Executive Down Hallway

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg

1. Officials from King County and advocates from community-based diversion programs responded Tuesday to what King County Executive Dow Constantine called “misinformation” about Restorative Community Pathways, a diversion program for young people that provides services and support for young people accused of first-time felony offenses, along with restitution and services for the people they’ve harmed.

“We’ve heard a lot of misinformation recently about the county’s juvenile diversion program and demonstrably false correlation to increased crime,” Constantine said. Earlier this year, King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, a Republican, called for putting a “pause” on the program, which had just been approved two months earlier.

Federal Way mayor Jim Ferrell, who’s running for prosecutor this year, has called the program an “outrageous breach of public trust” that contributes to gun violence, something Constantine and the current prosecutor, Dan Satterberg, deny. “Officials and others in positions of public trust should take care to rely on facts, not hyperbole and data, not anecdotes,” Constantine said.

Satterberg emphasized that the county is still prosecuting serious crimes. “Lest people think this is all we’re doing, that we’re diverting all our cases away, I want to make it quite clear that the context here is that diversion … is but a small facet of the complex approach  to public safety, crime, and justice that we have here in King County,” Satterberg said.

So far, about 380 kids have been referred to RCP programs, which are run by nine different community-based organizations, including Community Passageways, a youth diversion program that uses credible messengers to divert young people from the school-to-prison pipeline. Of those 380, 145 have completed the program, and just 8 percent have committed another offense, compared to about 20 percent of kids who go.through the traditional juvenile justice system.

“These young men standing behind me are the perfect model of what restorative justice looks like and how it works in our community,” Community Passageways director Dominque Davis said, gesturing toward four young men who went through his group’s program. “Right now, they shouldn’t be standing behind me. But because of the collaboration with county departments, and because of the work we’ve done in community with our partner organizations,” he said, they had not only graduated from the program but were working as case managers and business owners in their communities.

When Discovery Institute activist Jonathan Choe contacts county departments, including the executive’s, they have a standard response: “We decline to participate in your project.

2. Former KOMO reporter Jonathan Choe, who now produces anti-homeless videos for the far-right creationist think tank that spawned Chris Rufo, attended Tuesday’s press conference but didn’t ask any questions, despite the fact that only two reporters—myself and Omari Salisbury from Converge Media—plus a handful of camera operators were in the room, which left a lot of dead air.

Once the press conference was over and people started leaving, Choe began loudly demanding that Constantine respond to a question “about public safety.” When Constantine continued to walk away, Choe chased him down a hallway, nearly mowing down his chief of staff, “Mr Constantine, I’m asking about the Chinatown International district — why are you ignoring me?” he shouted theatrically, demanding to know if he would place a “moratorium” on a planned homeless shelter expansion in SoDo that, according to Choe, “the vast majority of the Chinatown-International District community opposes.”

Standing outside the elevator, Constantine responded: “You are not actually a journalist.” Reminding Choe why he was holding an iPhone, not a TV microphone, he added: “You were fired for promoting the Proud Boys.” (Choe was fired by Sinclair-owned KOMO TV after praising the insurrectionist group and posting a montage from their rally, encouraging viewers to attend the rally and learn about the Proud Boys’ “cause and mission.”) Choe continued arguing with Constantine’s staff, bellowing “I’m a journalist” when they told him they would only talk to legitimate media outlets.

Constantine’s response to Choe stood in marked contrast to that of Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, who has been known to let press conferences run long in order to politely answer Choe’s questions. When Choe contacts county departments, including the executive’s, they have a standard response: “We decline to participate in your project.”

The shelter complex, which would add 150 shelter spots, a tiny house village, and an RV safe lot to an existing 270-bed shelter in SoDo,  has been the subject of significant debate in the nearby Chinatown/International District community. Advocates such as Friends of the CID have argued that the complex, which will be run by the county, is another example of systemic racism—concentrating services for homeless and low-income people in an already vulnerable community without consulting them.

 

Isolation, Crowding In Youth Jail Increase As Deadline For Closure Looms

Graph showing the growing number of youth isolated for conditions unrelated to behaviorBy Erica C. Barnett

King County’s juvenile detention center is confining more young people, and keeping them isolated in their cells more often, than at any point since early 2019, a report from the independent team monitoring the county’s compliance with a law restricting the use of solitary confinement at the youth jail concluded.

The team, represented by consultant (and former Seattle Office of Police Accountability director) Kathryn Olson, presented its findings for the first quarter of 2022 to the King County Council’s law and justice committee Tuesday.

As of Tuesday, there were about 42 young people incarcerated at the county’s Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) in Seattle—a dramatic increase since last year, when King County Executive touted an average daily population of just 15 as he announced steps the county was taking toward emptying and closing the youth jail by 2025.

Most—38—of those incarcerated at the youth jail are facing juvenile charges for serious crimes, including robbery, kidnapping, assault, and rape; four are youth facing charges as adults.

At the same time, the CFJC—like the two adult jails—is dramatically understaffed, with about a quarter of juvenile detention officer positions unfilled. The county is offering bonuses of up to $15,000 for guards, and several other positions are vacant, including two nurse positions, according to a government jobs board.

According to the report, this combination of crowding and understaffing has contributed to an uptick in fights between incarcerated kids and assaults on staff; this, in turn, has led to more instances of “restrictive housing”—solitary confinement—which is supposed to be limited to no more than four hours at a time.

In addition to restrictive housing in response to behavioral issues, kids are often being confined in their rooms for hours—in some cases, for the majority of the day—for no reason other than that there aren’t enough staff to monitor them. Records from the county show more than 150 instances in both June and July in which young people were held in their cells for more than 18 hours a day, including the 12 overnight hours allowed for sleep—significantly longer than the four-hour maximum imposed by county law. According to a council staff report, this kind of confinement does “not constitute ‘solitary confinement’ under county code or state law, and therefore is permitted.” 

Committee chair Girmay Zahilay said it was “shocking” that locking kids in their rooms because of understaffing doesn’t count as solitary confinement, because “experientially, it’s the same thing…. what are the universe of resources that we need to address this issue [to create] clearly defined plan to get from where we are, which is an alarming situation to where we should be, which is healthy youth?”

Understaffing in youth detention is also impacting detainees’ ability to go to class. According to the report, “youth at CFJC who were recently interviewed complained that due to reoccurring staff shortages, they frequently have missed most classes on a regularly scheduled school day.”

“Until staffing shortages are resolved, until other employment issues that are impacting some of the programming services are resolved… we’re just going to continue to see some of these issues,” Olson said.

County Plans Emergency Walk-In Centers for Behavioral Health Crises

King County Executive Dow Constantine, flanked by Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall and state Rep. Nicole Macri
King County Executive Dow Constantine, flanked by Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall and state Rep. Nicole Macri

By Erica C. Barnett

On Thursday morning, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced his plan to introduce a plan to expand services for people experiencing behavioral health crisis as part of his 2023 budget proposal in September. The plan will attempt to address the worsening shortage of short- and long-term treatment for people with behavioral health conditions and substance use disorder. As of this year, Constantine said, the county has lost a third of its residential behavioral health care beds, “and it would have been more but for our intervention. And more facilities are potentially closing their doors in the months ahead.”

Currently, there is only one 16-bed crisis stabilization unit—the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Crisis Solutions Center—in the entire county. A person in crisis who needs help right away can call 911 or the new 988 mental health crisis line, but people who need immediate, intensive intervention generally have nowhere to go but emergency rooms, which are ill-equipped to deal with behavioral health crises, or jail.

:I’m glad we’re here to be talking about potentially expanding [the crisis] system, but we can’t just expand it. We need to fix what is broken. And if I’m being honest with you, I am part of what’s broken, and every other behavioral health worker, because the system has put us in an impossible situation.” —DESC registered nurse Naomi Morris

Gesturing toward the King County Correctional Facility across the street from the county building where the press conference was taking place, Constantine noted that of about 1,530 people in the county jail, more than 600, or two in five, are in some kind of treatment for behavioral health conditions. Many of those have been jailed for crimes that are often related to mental health conditions and poverty, such as theft, trespassing, and assault.

“We cannot accept having the county jail as the main place for people to get behavioral health care. And right now, the fact is that the jail across the street is the second largest behavioral health facility in the state of Washington. We can’t accept relying on law enforcement to solve what is ultimately the health care challenge,” Constantine said.

Constantine did not provide any details about the scope or cost of his plan, which the county is working on as part of a coalition with other elected officals—including state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43), Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, and King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay—and health care providers. However, he did indicate that in addition to new walk-in crisis centers, it will include better pay for behavioral health-care workers, such as Naomi Morris, a registered nurse who works for DESC.

“I’m glad we’re here to be talking about potentially expanding [the crisis] system,” Morris said, “but we can’t just expand it. We need to fix what is broken. And if I’m being honest with you, I am part of what’s broken, and every other behavioral health workerm because the system has put us in an impossible situation.” Morris said a coworker recently had to take unpaid leave to deal with the trauma caused by their job as a case manager and found themselves unable to meet their basic needs because “the amount of money they make [is] barely above what the clients we serve get.”

Earlier this year, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority asked the city to pay for salary increases for people who work for agencies like DESC; the KCRHA also funds its own in-house outreach team and pays them significantly more than nonprofit employees doing similar work.

Jury in Charleena Lyles Inquest Says Police Followed Policy in Shooting 30-Year-Old Black Woman in Crisis

By Erica C. Barnett

A King County inquest jury concluded that Seattle police officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew used reasonable force when they shot Charleena Lyles, a pregnant Black woman with mental illness, seven times in her apartment in 2017, killing her.

The jury, whose charge was determining whether the two officers acted reasonably and within SPD policy when they shot Lyles, said McNew violated the department’s policy on less-lethal weapons because he was not carrying his Taser at the time of the shooting, but agreed that a Taser would not have been a “a reasonably effective alternative to the deadly force” used against Lyles, who was holding a small paring knife when she was killed.

The jury’s findings followed seven days of presentations and witness interviews, including graphic photos of Lyles’ body and testimony from neighbors and a fire department officer who hurried Lyles’ children past her body and out of the apartment. After a court official finished reading the jury’s conclusions, Lyles’ father, Charles Lyles, shouted at Anderson and McNew, “You killed my daughter! Fuck you!” twice and told them they would have to answer to God before being ordered to leave the room.

The inquest into Lyles’ killing was delayed while King County revamped its process for reviewing shootings by officers, removing the inquiries from the court system and ensuring that families have legal representation. Despite these changes, the structure of an inquest remains rigid: In Lyles’ case, the six-person jury was charged with answering more than 120 yes/no questions, such as “at the time Officer Anderson or Officer McNew fired his handgun at Ms. Lyles, did it appear that a reasonably effective alternative to the use of deadly force existed?” to determine whether the officers violated the laws and Seattle Police Department policies that were in place at the time. On most questions, the jury was unanimous.

After the ruling, the attorney for Lyles’ family, Karen Koehler, said in a statement that the family “does not blame the jury” for finding that SPD followed its policies, because “SPD’s policies practices and procedures are designed specifically to allow an officer to shoot and kill a person in mental crisis with a paring knife.”

Officers knew that Lyles had a history of mental illness when they responded to her 911 call reporting a burglary in her apartment; just two weeks earlier, she made a similar 911 call and, after officers arrived and began taking her statement, suddenly started acting erratically and making statements that indicated she was in a mental health crisis, saying the officers were “devils” and “members of the KKK,” according to court records. She also pulled out a large pair of scissors.

In the six months prior to her death, Lyles had also called police more than 20 times, often to report domestic violence and assault by the man who fathered two of her four children. When McNew and Anderson arrived at her sweltering apartment, Lyles was wearing a long, heavy black coat—a fact that neither officer registered as a sign she might be experiencing a mental health crisis, according to testimony.

“During the 7 days of the inquest proceeding a solid and unflinching blue wall justified each and every action of its officers,” Koehler said. “the message is clear: if a person is in a mental health crisis and has any type of sharp edged instrument, tool or weapon – do not expect them to survive if 911 is called in Seattle. Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother of four children with three at home, called the police for help, went into mental crisis and was shot dead.  The findings of the inquest are nothing for the SPD to be proud about.”

The Seattle Community Police Commission, one of three police accountability bodies at the city, said in a statement that they were “disappointed” by the findings and the additional trauma the process created for her family, adding that they still support the revamped inquest process. “Police officers should be equipped with the right training and tools to deescalate and prioritize life” when they know a person is in crisis, the CPC said. “Despite Lyles’ small statute, neither of those things happened in this case.”

In a statement, Mayor Bruce Harrell called Lyles’ killing “a tragic event that rightfully shook our community” and pointed to the need for more “reforms and improvements” within the police department. “I continue to believe we are asking the wrong questions – not whether the use of lethal force was justified, but whether it was necessary. Could we have ensured officer safety and saved a life? How can we improve training and adopt practices that reflect a commitment to ensuring lethal force is used only when absolutely necessary?” Harrell said.

King County prosecuting attorney Dan Satterberg said yesterday that his office would review the jury’s findings and decide whether to charge either of the officers with a crime.

A spokesman for City Attorney Ann Davison said, “We hope the completion of this inquest and the findings of the inquest jury provide some semblance of closure to the family, officers, and the community. We thank the jury for their time, attention, and service.”

New Details Emerge About Harrell Administration’s Encampment Removal Plans

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said the “eco-block strategy” referenced in the second column “is related to the City’s response to the eco-blocks placed in the ROW by others.” Eco-blocks are cheap concrete blocks businesses use to prevent RVs from parking on public streets; placing them in the public right-of-way is illegal but the city does not enforce this law.

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s administration drafted a new “sidewalk strategy” for homeless encampments earlier this year that would have empowered the city’s new Unified Care Team, bolstered by Seattle police, to require anyone living in a public right-of-way in Seattle to move with just two hours’ notice, PubliCola has learned.

In January, Harrell’s strategic initiatives director Tim Burgess sent a memo to King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones titled “A New Approach to Tent Encampments on Sidewalks and Other Transportation Rights-of-Way.” In the memo, which PubliCola obtained through a records request, the new administration outlined a zero-tolerance strategy toward people living on sidewalks, in which “[c]ampers that remain will be given two hours’ notice to leave” to leave. The Human Services Department’s HOPE Team, along with King County Regional Homelessness Authority “outreach teams will offer services as appropriate, but these services will not be a prerequisite before asking campers to clear the public space,” the memo said.

Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen told PubliCola the sidewalk plan was never implemented. “Instead, the Mayor’s Office focused on streamlining City efforts through the launch of the Unified Care Team,” a group of employees from several city departments who are in charge of “”address[ing] the impacts of unsheltered homelessness in the city,” Housen said. But the administration’s dramatic acceleration of encampment removals, and its decision to focus first on reducing the number of people living on downtown sidewalks to zero, echo these early policy discussions.

In addition to the memo shared by Burgess, PubliCola has obtained a PowerPoint presentation created by administration officials earlier this year describes the downtown “Partnership for Zero,” which aims to eliminate encampments downtown by relocating people to appropriate shelter or housing, as the administration’s “safe sidewalk plan.” Harrell “wants to address obstructions in the right of way ASAP,” according to the presentation.

A separate set of presentations and internal memos, obtained through the same records request, reveals another aspect of Harrell’s approach to encampment removals that the administration has been reluctant to describe publicly: An “encampment scoring system” that allocates “scores” to encampments based on a set of criteria, including violent incidents, fires, proximity to parks or children, and sidewalk obstructions.

Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen described the scoring system as only one part of the mayor’s encampment prioritization strategy. “The scoring system is the building blocks for encampment prioritization,” Housen said. “The system is currently being tested and frequently refined as we learn more, to ensure the right information is driving decisions.”

A PowerPoint presentation dated 6/21/22 but presented to Harrell, according to internal emails, on April 19

The “Sidewalk Strategy”

In a memo from late January titled “Tent Highlights,” the Harrell administration outlined the basics of a new strategy to “[e]nd tent encampments on sidewalks and transportation rights-of-ways… a step that is essential to the economic recovery of the downtown and our neighborhood business areas.”

“City staff, including specially trained police officers, will be present when campers are notified that they must relocate,” the memo continues. “This is a harm-reduction approach, meaning campers will be asked to leave/relocate so the space remains clear and accessible by all.”

Dones expressed concerns in their comments on the memo about the possibility that the city would start sweeping downtown sidewalks before the KCRHA could implement its business-funded Partnership for Zero strategy. This strategy, which is still getting underway, aims to provide intensive case management by dozens of “system advocates” who will fan out across downtown and attempt to place everyone living in the area into appropriate shelter or housing, leaving downtown effectively encampment-free.

I don’t think that going through the city and just saying ‘No tents on sidewalks’ is feasible or advisable…  and saying to folks, ‘You have two hours to move all your stuff’ is not reasonable.”—King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones

“This seems like something that would be more successful if implemented completely after [the Partnership for Zero] drawdown phase is complete. Because then it’s about keeping sidewalks and right of ways clear,” Dones commented. The two-hour rule, Dones added, “feels difficult to enforce. How will people be made aware of the shifting rules? I would also extend the initial timeline so that when it’s announced people have X amount of time but then in the future they have Y amount of time.”

Reflecting on their comments on the memo last week, Dones said, “I don’t think that going through the city and just saying ‘No tents on sidewalks’ is feasible or advisable…  and saying to folks, ‘You have two hours to move all your stuff’ is not reasonable.” 

“Some of this sounds like what would make sense for implementation after [the “drawdown” phase of Partnership for Zero], as we’re talking about maintaining functional zero,” Dones added. “Then we could have that conversation about how we want to maintain spaces where people are not encamped, but the reason they’re not encamped is because we’re actively [housing or sheltering] them in real time.”

Housen, from the mayor’s office, said the city “stands in partnership with the KCRHA, King County, and We Are In in our support of Partnership for Zero. We look forward to the ramp up of that project and opportunities to work in alignment and coordination with the RHA towards the goal of the project.”

Asked how maintaining a visible police presence during encampment removals represented a “harm reduction approach,” Housen reiterated the city’s position that “activists and protestors” pose a threat to workers during sweeps and that police—who only began are necessary to “ensure that all people onsite, including City workers and encampment residents, are safe.”

Prioritizing for Sweeps

In addition to obstructions on sidewalks—the basis of the early “sidewalk strategy”—the mayor’s office established criteria for deciding which encampments to remove. During a recent press event, both Housen and Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington declined to describe any of the criteria in detail, but emphasized that they were “objective”— in other words, “you don’t get a higher rank because 20 people called” to complain, Washington said.

An internal presentation on the prioritization system, distributed in April, but bearing the official date June 21, 2022, says the Unified Care Team prioritizes shootings, fires, and major obstructions, followed by issues like trash; proximity to parks and places where children or elderly people congregate; and places where tents pose a visual obstruction to drivers.

According to Housen, the “scoring system” in the presentation represents “the building blocks for encampment prioritization. The system is currently being tested and frequently refined as we learn more, to ensure the right information is driving decisions.”

Image from city presentation on encampment prioritization, showing an example of a high-ranked encampment at Sixth and Cherry.
Image from city presentation on encampment prioritization, showing an example of a high-ranked encampment at Sixth and Cherry.

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority is preparing to release its own set of criteria for prioritizing encampments for outreach and offers of shelter or housing next week, which will differ somewhat from the city’s criteria. “We talk about encampment resolution, not removal, and resolution for us is everybody actually came inside,” Dones said. “We are not in favor of a displacement-based strategy, and we will engage over whatever period of time is necessary to get everybody into a real placement—not a referral, a placement.”

Overall, though, Dones said the Harrell administration’s prioritization scheme is about “85 percent consistent with how the authority is going to view prioritization,” including the emphasis on violence at encampments. “We agree with that prioritization,” Dones said, and “in our work, we have a corresponding section that looks at violence—things like physical assault, potentially nonphysical assault, verbal abuse, etc. between campers, ranging between simple assaults all way up to shots fired, and ranks those things with different weights.” Continue reading “New Details Emerge About Harrell Administration’s Encampment Removal Plans”

Audit of Sheriff’s Office Finds Racial Disparities; Parking Officers Want Access to Crime Database; West Seattle Sweep Illustrates Futility of Sweeps

1. A new audit of the King County Sheriff’s Office found significant racial disparities in use of force, arrests, and who becomes a “suspect” in areas where the sheriff’s office is the primary law enforcement agency.

Residents and sheriff’s deputies “reported Black people as suspects and officers arrested Black people at rates nearly four times higher than expected given their proportion of the county population,” according to the audit report.

Although the county’s data on use of force was limited—619 calls led to a use of force between 2019 and 2021—the audit found that “overall, White officers as a group used force twice as often as Black or Asian officers. Additionally, both Black and Hispanic people were subjected to uses of force more often than White people.”

As the chart above shows, there were also major disparities in arrests—specifically, Black people were three and a half times more likely to be arrested than their proportion of the population would predict. In some areas, such as Sammamish and Woodinville, Black people were arrested at a rate more than ten times out of proportion to their population.

After “controlling” for overall arrest rates between various racial groups, that differential more or less disappears, but it still illustrates major upstream disparities, principal management auditor Peter Heineccius told the King County Council on Tuesday: Black, brown, and Native American people are far more likely than white and Asian people to become suspects (in part because people call police on them more), and more likely to be arrested as the result of a 911 call.

“This shows the risk of how an analysis that controls for certain factors might explain away racial disparities because it removes analysis of how [people of] different races become suspects,” he said.

Another factor that makes it hard to grasp the scope of racial disparities in stops and detentions: The sheriff’s office does not collect information about race during the vast majority of encounters with the public. Under the department’s interpretation of a law intended to protect immigrants from ICE, the county council would need to change county law to allow officers to start routinely recording the race of people they encounter.

“Previous Sheriff’s Office leadership has also stated that officers should not collect information about race, limiting the ability to quantify and ultimately reduce racial disparities,” the audit says.

Calling in to the council meeting on Tuesday, county Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall said she “was heartened to see that while the report did say there are racial disparities, the amount of force that we use, based on the number of contracts was very, very minimal”—about 0.06 percent of all calls for service result in force, according to the audit.

2. The city’s decision to refund around $5 million in parking fines, and drop the equivalent of another $5 million in tickets, is not the only issue parking enforcement officers have raised during their transition from the Seattle Police Department to the Seattle Department of Transportation. Parking officers, who are considered “special police officers” under the commission from SPD that was at the center of the parking ticket snafu, want to retain access to the Criminal Justice Information System, a that allows police to do background checks on vehicle owners, via radio, before making a stop.

Now, the union that represents the parking enforcement officers, the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers Guild (SPEOG), filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint against the city for taking away their access to CJIS without bargaining the changes with the union. CJIS is only available to law enforcement officers; the state Public Employment Relations Commission is currently considering their claim.

“We sill have access to radio—it’s that the information is not the same as when we were at SPD,” said SPEOG president Chrisanne Sapp. “We are able to read between the lines, but with the body of work that we do, I don’t find that reading between the lines is an acceptable response.”

PERC hearings are not public; however, representatives from the city have argued that parking enforcement officers can still call in plates and find out if they should avoid a parked vehicle, even without access to the information system.

2. The recent removal of a small encampment from a park near the West Seattle Golf Course illustrates the problem with the city’s approach to sweeps, according to Keith Hughes, a neighbor who runs a day center at the nearby American Legion hall: Without housing and meaningful services, people just come back.

All five people who were living in Totem Pole Park a week ago returned to the area within three days, according to Hughes, including a couple who moved their tent temporarily to another location and three single men who stayed a couple nights in a large downtown shelter and came back to West Seattle days after they left. One of the men subsequently attacked Hughes physically, he said, punching the 74-year-old in the face and leaving him with a droopy eye, a large cut, and bruises on his left shoulder. Continue reading “Audit of Sheriff’s Office Finds Racial Disparities; Parking Officers Want Access to Crime Database; West Seattle Sweep Illustrates Futility of Sweeps”